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By Merrill Miller
The definition of an atheist is someone who lacks a belief in any kind of deity. Alternately, an atheist could be defined as someone who asserts that no kind of deity exists. With either definition in mind, how did the Pew Religious Landscape Survey discover that one in five self-identified atheists believe in God?
In a November 4 article for Religion News Service (RNS), Tobin Grant attempts to reconcile these findings with what atheism means, acknowledging first that the term “atheism” may mean something different to individual people and that their personal definition may not fit the conventional understanding of the term. For instance, someone may take an active dislike to institutionalized religion but believe in some sort of higher power, and may adopt the label “atheist” as a kind of protest against the bureaucracy and dogma that she or he associates with traditional faiths. Grant also considers the possibility that some survey respondents may consider themselves atheists but use the term “God” to refer to abstract laws of nature or the principles of the universe. Additionally, the article recognizes that issues of personal belief or nonbelief are often complex and cannot be communicated through simple survey options. An atheist might acknowledge that there is a social construction of an all-powerful being referred to as “God” without believing that this being objectively exists outside of society’s conception of it. However, this intricate view is difficult to convey in a survey response.
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